We're less than a month away from the start of the NFL season, so it's time to start the impassioned season previews from various writers, bloggers, diehard fans, cooks, TV personalities, and numerous other walks of life whom consider football the only sport worth watching. Right now: the Pittsburgh Steelers. Your author, of course, is Don Spagnolo. Don Spagnolo is a freelance writer and editor of Mondesi's House, a Pittsburgh sports comedy blog.Once again, I am returning from my Western Pennsylvania-based nerdery to write a Deadspin season preview containing entirely too many words and pictures about a Pittsburgh sports franchise. I know my articles used to give Will fits from a formatting point-of-view, but he begrudgingly asked me back twice each year to saturate you in all things Yinzer. Hopefully I can live up to the expectations built up so graciously by the Deadspin Commenters for this year's edition. In 2006, I wrote a list of 50 Reasons Why I Love the Steelers for my preview. In 2007, I ranked the 50 Biggest Stories in the Steeler Universe (on the field and off) Since Last Year's Preview. They were both pretty well-received, but there was one minor problem: they really weren't previews. I read the assignment two years ago from Mr. Leitch as it still reads today: "We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, even a TV guy or two, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, why My Team Is Better Than Your Team. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever. " Basically, it looked like a license to write whatever I wanted about the Steelers, so I took him up on the offer. "Why's my team is better than your team? Here's 50 reasons." That's what created this monster. With that in mind, I am setting out this year to write an actual preview of your 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers season. What happened in training camp? What's going on with ownership? What can we expect from Steely McBeam? These questions will all be answered in this year's Steeler Preview: 20 Questions Fans Are Asking About the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers. Let's begin. 20. Should Steeler fans be concerned about the 2008 schedule? Steeler fans should never worry about the schedule. Other teams should worry about having to play the Steelers. That being said, we've got quite the gauntlet to run this year: road games against New England, Washington, Tennessee, Philadelphia, and Jacksonville; home games against Dallas, Indianapolis, the Super Bowl Champion Giants, San Diego, Houston; and did I mention six divisional grudge-matches with Cleveland, Baltimore and Cincinnati? All of the 10 teams on their non-divisional schedule finished at .500 or better in 2007, and eight of the 10 made the playoffs. But the Steelers have a knack of playing better when their backs are against the wall and "no one gives them a chance" [channeling Hines Ward], so this may just work out for the best. At least that's what I'm telling myself. 19. Why did the Steelers give OT Max Starks a one-year tender worth nearly $7 million guaranteed? I have no answer for you, so I've narrowed it down to four options: A. He has compromising pictures of Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, or both. B. They wanted to spend some money on an offensive lineman in the offseason, but Alan Faneca annoyed them one too many times. C. He's the centerpiece of the Steeler charity basketball team. D. They wanted to set a team record for the largest contract ever given to a backup lineman. In other words, your guess is as good as mine. 18. With the releases of RB Najeh Davenport in 2008 and Duce Staley during 2006, what will bloggers do to try and recreate the predictable poop jokes every single time they reference Steeler running backs? I don't know…can you make some off-color reference out of the name "Mewelde?" In actuality, the Steelers should have quite the formidable backfield in 2008. Willie Parker was leading the league in rushing at the time of his injury last year and will try to get back to his 2006 numbers: 1,716 yards of offense and 16 touchdowns. Behind Parker, there's 2007 Big Tenleven MVP Rashard Mendenhall, former Minnesota Viking Mewelde Moore, and second-year man Gary Russell, as well as fullback Carey Davis. This should not be an area of concern for the team in '08. 17. Who will be the Steelers' starting punter in 2008? Due to the season-ending ACL injury to incumbent Daniel Sepulveda, there's an open competition for the job. As of this writing, it's either Paul Ernster, who famously booted a 15-yarder at Heinz Field as a Cleveland Brown in 2007, or Mitch Berger, who's on his seventh NFL team. And you know how the saying goes…"When you have two punters, you have no punters." 16. Who will be the Steelers' starting punt returner in 2008? I don't know. You doin' anything on Sundays? Let's just say that special teams have not exactly been a strong point of the team, if you haven't already gotten that memo by the tone of the last two questions. They lost one of their team's true strengths with the defection of Antwaan Randle-El to Washington shortly after the Super Bowl, a blow to the return game that they still haven't recovered from. They actually traded up to draft a punter in the fourth round of the 2007 draft, the same guy who tore his ACL. Before that, the punter was the unblock able Chris Gardocki, a man Steeler fans will forget no time soon. Ironically, the strong point of the special teams unit, kicker Jeff Reed, is remarkably consistent, hitting 23 of 25 field goals last season, yet he is probably better known for his ongoing series of internet pictures seen prominently on the very site you're reading. But back to the question at hand, the competition for the punt returner job has so far included Chiefs castoff Eddie "Mister" Drummond, the aforementioned Mewelde Moore, perennial disappointment Willie Reid, former skier/male model Jeremy Bloom, and rookie defensive back Travis Williams.
The face of the Steelers' punt returner? To quote Martin Prince, "highly dubious." Plus, Mike Tomlin just added that Santonio Holmes may run some back in a situational role reminiscent of Hall of Famer Darrell Green's with Washington. Long story short, it sounds like another season in which anything can happen once the ball leaves the punter's foot. 15. If new backup QB Byron Leftwich is so great, why was he still available to any team that wanted him in August? Good question. In his first preseason game, we saw flashes of why he was available, like his insistence on throwing frozen ropes to receivers standing about five yards in front of him and the escapability of your average 80-year-old. But he does throw a ball that WR Nate Washington actually catches, which is a feat in itself. You can rip on Leftwich all you want, but at least he wasn't dumb enough to presume that he would get a shot at Ben Roethlisberger's starting quarterback job, like a certain unnamed Culpepper allegedly did at his tryout. Steeler Nation welcomes you with welcome arms, Byron, as you step into a role that historically transforms a person into one of the most popular people in Pittsburgh: the Steelers' backup quarterback. If only Kordell Stewart were playing in front of you, there's a great chance you would probably be even more popular. 14. Why was NT Casey Hampton placed on the PUP list to start camp? I'm guessing it had something to do with his diet and a thorough dislike for an exercise known to you and I as "jogging". But Hampton's body was THE definitive story at the start of training camp, inspiring bloggers everywhere to dig up that picture of Hampton with his shirt open and a bottle of vodka in his hand.
Personally, I went for the picture of Hampton sitting in the first row at a Penguin playoff game and giving the glass all it could handle after celebrating a Marian Hossa goal.
Let's hope that time on the PUP list serves as the public kick-in-the-pants that it was intended to be. 13. Speaking of offseason distractions, what are WR Cedrick Wilson and LB James Harrison up to? Wilson, who was arrested on March 19 after allegedly assaulting his girlfriend at a Pittsburgh-area Mexican restaurant, was released hours later by the team. Following a 2007 season in which he had 18 catches and a touchdown, he is now coaching high school football and taking classes at the University of Memphis in hopes of becoming a teacher. Harrison, a 2007 Pro Bowler and the Steelers' Team MVP, was arrested on March 8 after a domestic altercation with his girlfriend, but the charges were dropped in April after he completed anger management counseling. He remains with the team and will once again be starting at linebacker. Owner Dan Rooney addressed the perceived double-standard in a way that really didn't satisfy the Women's Center and Shelter of Pittsburgh, which kept the story in the news even longer and seemingly threw gas on the raging debate. Needless to say, it was not a proud chapter in Steeler history. Awkwardly moving on… 12. Does CB Deshea Townsend still play? Not only does he still play, but he's expected to start once again in 2008. There aren't many guys in the league who don't start until their 7th season, but Townsend is one of them. After starting a total of 16 games between 1998-2003, Townsend has started 58 of a possible 64 games since 2004. The Steelers drafted CB Bryant McFadden as a potential replacement in the second round of the 2005 draft, and every year, like the movie Groundhog Day, we hear about how McFadden might unseat Townsend as the starter. And every year, Townsend ends up with the job. His nickname should be Punxsutawney Townsend. 11. Will the Steelers miss guard Alan Faneca, who signed with the New York Jets? It depends on which Alan Faneca you're talking about. There's the Alan Faneca that made seven Pro Bowls, five All-Pro teams and served as captain for three seasons. Then there's the Alan Faneca who sulked his way through the 2007 preseason, told his teammates not to listen to line coach Larry Zierlein, asked out of his captain duties prior to the start of last season, and played on a line that allowed Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked 47 times in 2007. So to answer the question, yes and no. It could be addition by subtraction in one sense, as he was obviously no longer happy here; but the fact that this year's edition of the offensive line is far from a work of art makes some question the decision to let Faneca walk away. 10. Despite the offseason distraction of having his nude photos hitting the internet, what can we forecast for Santonio Holmes in 2008? Despite his insistence on wearing Kordell's old number 10, I'm hoping for 70-80 catches, 1200 or so yards, eight touchdowns, a punt return taken to the house, and, much to Deadspin's dismay, no sequels to his photo portfolio. By the way, what is it with the Steelers and internet pictures? Santonio, Jeff Reed, Roethlisberger, Hampton… 9. What are the current whereabouts of mascot Steely McBeam?
My answer: Following a tumultuous offseason that culminated in a DUI for one of the actors who portrays Steely, all signs indicate that he is alive and well and will be ready for the season. The answer I predict the commenters to give: "Probably hanging out at The Pegasus Lounge in Pittsburgh." 8. Why do Mike Tomlin press conferences sound like takes from a movie about football and not an actual NFL press conference? If you've never witnessed this, pay close attention the next time you see our second-year coach address the media. He speaks in a series of short, abrupt sentences that sound more like Denzel Washington than Bill Cowher. I'm convinced that one day NFL Films will release their first full-length feature film and any scenes involving the coach will be old stock footage of Tomlin. That being said, Tomlin's had a pretty good start to his Steeler career. A 10-6 record and an AFC North Championship following a tumultuous 2006 Cowher-led campaign was good enough for most Steeler fans. Make no doubt about it, the postseason exit on Heinz Field turf to Jacksonville was very disappointing; but I don't think many people regret the hiring of Tomlin one bit. 7. What's going on with the offensive line? Wow…that's a loaded question. Questions #19 and 11 certainly factor into this, but neither of them are going to be starters on this year's team. The names you will be hearing are tackles Marvel Smith and Willie Colon, guards Kendall Simmons and Chris Kemoeatu, and center Justin Hartwig. I'm not going to sugar-coat this: the team will only go as far as the line this season. I'd put their skill-position players up against anyone else's; Roethlisberger, Parker, Mendenhall, Ward, Holmes, and Heath Miller are a formidable bunch with a lot of firepower. The defense may have its share of problems but should not hold the team back in any great way (as long as they can get off of the field on 3rd down). But without any protection for the aforementioned skill players, this team will not be playing far into 2009. Despite incredible numbers by Roethlisberger and a solid season from Parker, the offensive line was a MAJOR disappointment in 2007 and that was with Alan Faneca, albeit a Faneca who was undermining his line coach. Sean Mahan was a disaster at center, ending the incredible run of Pro Bowlers the Steelers featured at the position since, oh, the 1960s (that's right: four centers in 42 years). Smith battled injuries and started just 12 games. The coaching staff's tutelage was falling on deaf ears. By Steeler standards, it was below-par, and it's a unit that must improve in 2008. 6. Orpheus Roye is coming back? Is that a good thing or a bad thing for the defensive line? Yes, the 6'4", 330-pounder who used to terrorize opponents as a wedge-buster has come back to Pittsburgh. It took only eight seasons in Cleveland for Roye to realize that he was never going to win anything as a Brown, and if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Right, Marian Hossa? Sorry, wrong sport. The defensive line has played to lukewarm reviews in the preseason. They certainly have performed well in the past both individually and as a group, but they face questions about age, endurance, and depth this year. Hampton arrived out of shape, Brett Keisel has looked mediocre, and Aaron Smith is coming off of torn biceps suffered last December. The Roye signing is to give them some semblance of depth, especially since the flirtation with Booger McFarland never really materialized. If Roye's homecoming doesn't work out, he can always recruit Hampton for an intimidating competitive-eating tag team. And that's something no one wants to see. 5. How awesome of a draft did the Steelers have in 2008? Let's put it this way: if you would've said during the 2007 college football campaign that the Steelers would land Oregon QB Dennis Dixon, Illinois RB Rashard Mendenhall, and Texas WR Limas Sweed, I doubt anyone would have believed you. But this is the same organization that turned undrafted free agents Willie Parker and James Harrison into household names and Pro Bowlers. Does anything they do surprise you at this point? I'll be back in a minute. I just spilled my glass of Steeler-flavored Kool-Aid on my laptop and need to get a paper towel or two. 4. How many games will safety Troy Polamalu play in this season? I'm putting the over-under at nine: weeks 1, 2, and 3, he'll be fine as he enters the season in tip-top shape after avoiding an entire preseason; he'll re-aggravate something in week four against Baltimore, then miss Jacksonville and rest during the bye week. He'll return for Cincinnati but tweak something and miss the Giants, Redskins, and Colts. With a clean bill of health, he will play in three consecutive games but hold an ice bag on his hamstring too long and miss the Patriots and Cowboys games. He will come back to face the Ravens and Titans but will sit out week 17 against Cleveland as the Steelers rest up for the playoffs. I kid, I kid. I love Polamalu. He's an exceptional talent and a wonderful person. It just seems like he's a little…high-maintenance. That's all. 3. Why do Steeler fans long for a power back? Probably for the same reason that Green Bay fans long for a gunslinging quarterback who just loves to play the game. Some things are just the way they are. But the fact is that any man suiting up at running back and approaching Jerome Bettis' playing weight of 252 pounds will be expected by Steeler fans to fill the power back role in the foreseeable future. With that in mind, imagine the exhilaration Steeler fans felt when the team drafted Rashard Mendenhall with their first pick. It's like a younger version of The Bus! Well, not quite. I don't remember Bettis ever running back kicks, nor do I remember him catching many passes, both things that Mendenhall is more than capable of doing. In terms of size, Mendenhall goes 5'10", 225 pounds, about 15 more than Parker. But he is not simply a back that will run you over; his package also includes speed and mobility. He's not Jerome Bettis. There's only one Jerome Bettis. We need to finally embrace the backfield that we have and I think we'll be more than happy with the results. 2. What's going on with the ownership of the Steelers? I actually got to interview part-owner Art Rooney Jr. at great length this summer to help promote his book, but due to the timing of the interview (basically right in the midst of the story breaking) and the media swarm, the ownership topic was off the table. So I have to read and listen to the news stories just like you. But at last check, the five Rooney brothers will be meeting with Commissioner Goodell on August 26 at NFL HQ, and possibly meet with former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue before then. The prospective owner is Stanley Druckenmiller, a 55-year-old hedge fund manager who's the 91st richest American, according to Forbes Magazine. That's right, a hedge fund manager originally from Pittsburgh. TV executives are immediately re-thinking their "blue-collar Steelers, playing like the steelworkers that watch them" clichés as we speak. Although he now lives in New York, he flies to Pittsburgh for all Steeler home games, tailgates in the parking lot and paints his face black-and-gold. He's basically like every other person that follows the team, only he has $3.5 billion dollars. We shall wait and see what materializes, but we're probably looking at a lengthy process to iron out the numerous details. 1. Why does most of America continue to rate Ben Roethlisberger any lower than the third-best quarterback in the NFL? I had to save my soapbox question for last. Rarely when any type of list comes out ranking quarterbacks does Roethlisberger land at third behind the obvious Brady/Manning coin-flip. Usually, it's either Carson Palmer, Tony Romo, Drew Brees, and now even Derek Anderson who get perceived as being superior to Roethlisberger. In his preseason QB rankings last year, Peter King had him ranked 17th, behind quarterbacks such as Chad Pennington and Jon Kitna, then had the audacity to say that he greatly valued winning in his equation. So why does this perception exist? Statistically, Roethlisberger was 2nd in the NFL in passing last year with 32 touchdowns, 3154 yards, and a 104.1 rating. Only Brady was better, and he had one of (if not the best) season a QB has ever had. For his career, Roethlisberger is 5th all-time with a 92.5 rating, a number higher than Montana, Marino, Favre, Elway, Unitas, and yes, Bradshaw. From a wins-losses standpoint, the only loss he suffered in his rookie season was in the AFC Championship, and he won the Super Bowl in year two. 2006 was a total loss with the motorcycle wreck and appendectomy, and his play suffered as expected. Frankly, he was lucky to be alive, let alone play quarterback at a high level. But healthy again in '07, he was dominant despite a line that let him get sacked 47 times. He's not as sexy of a story as Jessica & Romo (like Palmer, another QB who's never gotten past round one), he's not the new guy on the block like Anderson, and he wasn't as nationally covered in college like Palmer. But he is not a game manager. He has the capability to single-handedly will a team to victory, as he's done numerous times in his short career. His 2006 AFC playoff performance on the road to the Super Bowl was the stuff of legends, leading the team to road wins at Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Denver. And he's a fearless player, regularly moving out of the pocket to extend plays and run when necessary, as his 204 yards in that category last year would indicate. Is he as bothered as Steeler fans by the perceptions that he's incapable in some aspects as a quarterback? I highly doubt it. He's not the one sitting in front of the TV listening to this and/or sitting in front of a computer reading this, we are. Does it fuel him? Again, I doubt it. When a defense is bearing down on you and you need to make a play, I don't think words that Peter King wrote last July will be the first thing to pop into your mind. As far as I'm concerned, people should continue to doubt Roethlisberger. It's happened every year he's been in the league, and I think he's had a pretty awesome career so far. Plus, it gives me something to talk about on a regular basis. Trade Roethlisberger for any QB in the league? No thanks. Epilogue After 3,400+ words and a serious amount of time taken away from my day job, it's back to watching the Steelers through my black-and-gold goggles. The always-too-long Steeler Preview, probably the only one with an epilogue, has come to an end. Fellow Steeler fans, I leave you with these words. Recite them to your friends ad nauseam throughout the season: Here we go, Steelers, here we go.